Last Sunday, as Service Leader at my Unitarian Universalist congregation, I started the service with a mini-testimonial. I joined my first UU congregation at a particularly dark, stressful period in my life. I’d say it’s been a Godsend, but like most UU’s, I’m not comfortable using the G word. In this darkest time of the year, when holiday joy is virtually mandatory, I’m sure there are many folks struggling with feelings of loss and depression. If by any chance you haven’t found a spiritual home, perhaps this post is for you. Here’s what I said on Sunday:
In sweet fields of autumn the gold grain is falling,
the white clouds drift lonely, the wild swan is calling.
Alas for the daisies, the tall fern and grasses,
when wind sweep and rainfall fill lowlands and passes.
That’s the first verse of the beautiful hymn “In Sweet Fields of Autumn,” and it reduced me to tears when I heard it 15 years ago on my first visit to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills. I was going through a difficult time: I was running my home care agency, ElderSource, an incredibly stressful business that demanded my attention 24/7, and my teenage daughter had just left home to explore the country on her own. I was depressed and anxious, and the congregation promised comfort and community – I think I was sobbing with relief when I heard that hymn.
I’d been without a church for over 40 years. My parents were both staunch atheists, but out of a sense of obligation, feeling I had the right to explore my own religious path, they took me to the Unitarian Sunday School in Milwaukee. But when the boy next door invited me to go with his family to the Episcopalian Church, I jumped at the chance. It didn’t take long for me to get converted. When my parents asked why I wanted to switch, I said, “At the Unitarian church, all they have is some jigsaw puzzles with the pieces missing, but at the Episcopalian church, I get to march behind the gold cross and sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’”
Eventually I got myself baptized and confirmed Episcopalian, but sometime in my teenage years, I came to the realization that I was not and would never be a true believer. Except for a few weddings and funerals, that was the end of my church going for the next four decades, until the UU Congregation of the Catskills quite literally threw me a lifeline.
In 1998, I closed the agency, and my husband and I pulled up roots in New Paltz and moved to Troy, where we knew practically no one. The transition was tough, but once we found the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, the sense of being part of a welcoming community made us feel at home. I found ways of getting involved – I chaired the Adult Education Committee, and later Small Group Ministry. The prospect of publishing in Oriel [FUUSA’s annual literary magazine] inspired me to start writing poetry, and I joined the motley crew that writes and performs the annual dinner skit.
Today I’m at a good point in my life, with a lot to be grateful for, and my participation in this welcoming community is part of the reason. The depression and anxiety are long gone, and I no longer sob over the sad words in hymns, but I know that if times get tough, this congregation will be there for me.
Last week I took my granddaughters to the Congregation of the Catskills, which is just ten minutes from their new home in West Hurley. They both liked it and want to go back, and Kaya’s going to be involved in the R.E.’s Festival of Lights presentation next Sunday. I’m hoping they’ll grow up as part of the beloved community it took me 40 years to find.
I invite readers to visit the national website of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. There you’ll find a lot more information, including a directory of more than 1,000 congregations listed by geographical area. At all of them, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of beliefs, you’ll find a warm welcome.
There’s something about Unitarian Universalism that seems to attract writers – on one of the panels I moderated for the Poisoned Pen Web Con, four panelists out of five turned out to be UU’s! But whether you’re a UU or not, I welcome your comments here.